Well, it’s finally here. After months of waiting and an extensive number of predictions, it’s time for the college basketball season to begin. And it figures to be an exciting year for the Big Ten, who enters the year with the No. 1 team and a plethora of others under top 25 consideration. It also figures to be a transformational season with new head coaches taking over at multiple Big Ten programs.
But how do the teams look heading into this season? Let’s take a look at my preseason Big Ten power rankings.
Big Ten Preseason Power Rankings
#1 - Michigan State Spartans (--)
It’s been quite some time since the Big Ten had as clear cut a front runner as it figures to have this season in Michigan State. Though the league has its favorite every year heading into the season, it’s rare to have a group seemingly anointed as Big Ten champions before any games. Ok, maybe that last sentence is a bit hyperbolic, but it hits the nail on the head. The Spartans are an easy pick for first in this set of rankings and it isn’t even close.
After winning more than 30 games in the previous season and advancing to the Final Four, most teams would anticipate taking a step back. However, that’s not the case with Michigan State. The team projects to return its best player in Cassius Winston, two great freshmen in Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry, and a dynamic big man in Xavier Tillman. That’s a killer group of top players for a team and goes six-deep.
But it doesn’t even stop there. The Spartans are not only poised to return the talented core described above, but also young players like Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier. Additionally, Michigan State has one of the highest ranked 2019 recruiting classes in the nation, led by Malik Hall and Rocket Watts. Both could contribute as freshmen this season.
The only real losses for Michigan State will come from Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid, and Nick Ward. And while these shouldn’t be understated, none of these three are exactly irreplaceable. Brown and Henry should be able to replace McQuaid’s minutes and the Spartans have plenty of firepower upfront. Tillman already passed Ward last season and Kithier is developing as well.
By any measure, Michigan State should be one of the deepest, most talented, and most experienced teams in the country. Winston figures to be the best player in the league yet again and might even have more around him than he did in route to a Final Four appearance last season. Perhaps the only challenge will be overcoming the loss of Joshua Langford to injury. He is out through at least the first few months of the season.
Michigan State opens its season on Tuesday night with a matchup against No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic. The Spartans will also face Binghamton at home on Sunday.
#2 - Maryland Terrapins (--)
In what seems to be becoming an annual tradition, Maryland enters the season with lofty expectations. The Terps had one of the youngest rosters in college basketball last season (349th nationally) and are expected by many to reap the dividends of that youth this year.
The departure of Bruno Fernando will be a major hit, but the Terps are expected to return every major contributor around him. Anthony Cowan will be a senior in the backcourt, Darryl Morsell should be back after his sophomore season, and players like Eric Ayala, Jalen Smith, and Aaron Wiggins are all projected to return after showing some major signs last season as well.
By any account, that’s a massive amount of talent. Cowan has been one of the Big Ten’s most productive guards over the last three seasons, Morsell will be an upperclassmen, and players like Smith and Wiggins are receiving serious NBA hype. Add in a few others like Serrel Smith and a solid incoming 2019 class and there should be more than enough talent for Mark Turgeon and his staff to get the team back to the NCAA Tournament and in Big Ten title contention.
Perhaps the lone question about this team will be whether Turgeon can finally deliver in the team’s biggest moments. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but Maryland hasn’t exactly had a history of exceeding expectations under Turgeon’s leadership. Fans will be hoping that will change this season.
Maryland will open its season at home against Holy Cross on Tuesday and will follow that up with another home game on Saturday against Rhode Island. The second game figures to be the more intriguing of the two.
#3 -Purdue Boilermakers (--)
Whether it’s fair or not, last season will largely be remembered by fans for what didn’t happen in the team’s finale against Virginia. After gaining so much momentum in March and getting so close to the Final Four, Carsen Edwards and crew weren’t able to get the job done. Some will soften the hit by citing the fact that Virginia ended up going on to win the national championship, but I’m not sure that will make things less painful for Boilermaker fans. Everything was right there and it just didn’t happen.
On paper, Purdue returns a pretty talented squad for this season. Carsen Edwards may be off to the NBA and players like Ryan Cline and Grady Eifert are also gone, but there are more than enough pieces to get it done. Nojel Eastern will return in the backcourt and Trevion Williams and Matt Haarms return upfront. Freshmen like Eric Hunter, Sasha Stefanovic, and Aaron Wheeler should also be back after getting some decent minutes last season. It seems reasonable to expect at least one or two of those guys to take a step forward. Purdue is also adding a four-star guard in its backcourt in Brandon Newman this offseason. The team also added transfer Jahaad Proctor.
But even with all those pieces, it won’t be easy to replace players like Edwards and Cline. And that doesn’t even account for the potential hangover from the team’s loss to Virginia last March. While the “hangover theory” isn’t used all that much in college sports, this looks like as appropriate of a time as any. Matt Painter deserves the benefit of the doubt at this point, but it’s something that’s going to carry over into this season.
The takeaway here is that Purdue projects to be a really solid team, despite its question marks. Whether it will be able to continue being a top contender in the league and nationally will depend on how the Boilermakers overcome last year’s loss to Virginia.
Purdue will open its season on Tuesday at home against Green Bay. After that, Purdue will host Texas at home on Saturday. The Boilermakers narrowly lost on the road to the Longhorns last season.
#4 - Ohio State Buckeyes (--)
Last season was a bizarre one for Ohio State. The team jumped out to a 12-1 start, but collapsed once it hit conference play. And while the Buckeyes were able to rebound, the team fell off again down the stretch heading into the postseason. The good news for fans is that Ohio State responded by beating Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament and beating Iowa State in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament.
What many have forgotten about last year’s Ohio State team is that it wasn’t supposed to be an NCAA team heading into the season. The Buckeyes lost a ton heading into last season and projected for a rebuilding year. Instead, Ohio State not only made the postseason, but beat a really good Iowa State team in the Round of 64. The surprising performance left a lot of fans unreasonably disappointed.
That success is important because it should feed into this year’s squad. The team should be led by Kaleb Wesson again upfront, but the players surrounding him should be significantly better this time around. Luther Muhammad and Duane Washington should return in the backcourt after freshmen seasons, Andre Wesson and Kyle Young will be upperclassmen on the wing, and the team adds a really talented 2019 recruiting class, highlighted by point guard DJ Carton.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Ohio State will be replacing Keyshawn Woods, who really came on at the end of the season. CJ Jackson is also departing after three productive seasons in Columbus. The Buckeyes also need to find more diversity on offense. The team often became overly reliant on Kaleb Wesson down low. If Ohio State is going to take the next step, it needs to add a play maker or two in the backcourt.
One potential challenge for the Buckeyes early on will be an injury to Musa Jallow. Fans will hope he can make a quick recovery.
The Buckeyes will open things up on Wednesday at home against a really good Cincinnati team before hosting UMass Lowell at home on Sunday. Two wins would be a great sign for things to come in Columbus.
#5 - Illinois Fighting Illini (--)
Perhaps no team has been more difficult to project over the last five years than Illinois. Since I started writing for this site in 2014, it seems like the Illini have routinely over or underachieved expectations. Maybe it’s been more of the latter lately, but it seems like we never have a good handle on what Illinois is going to do in any given season.
And heading into this season, I have that feeling once again.
By any general measure, Illinois projects to be one of the best teams in the Big Ten this season. The Illini return four of the team’s five starters from last year, including a potential superstar in Ayo Dosunmu and a tremendously talented big man in Giorgi Bezhanishvili. It honestly wouldn’t even be that surprising if those two both earned some type of All-Big Ten honors this year. And of course, the Illini return nearly everyone around them. Illinois also brings in a top 50 big man in Kofi Cockburn this offseason.
The lone projected departure for Illinois is Aaron Jordan. And while he was a productive player, he only played 66.7 percent of the team’s minutes last season. He also fell off a bit down the stretch, only scoring double-digits in one of the team’s final seven games. Replacing him won’t be a given, but his overall numbers look relatively replaceable.
But even with so much talent and depth on the roster, it’s hard to feel confident. Illinois hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and has been a mess since the program made the national championship game in 2005. Reversing that trend won’t be guaranteed.
It’s also worth mentioning that this year’s roster projects to be eerily similar to last year’s team. That isn’t a bad thing, but I like to highlight this a lot in prediction pieces. Making a new dish with the same ingredients can be challenging. After all, these guys were already here last season and the team went 12-21 overall. We’ve seen scores of teams “return everyone” and fail to make noticeable improvements over the offseason. We can’t just assume Illinois will get better with another year of experience.
Nonetheless, there is a lot to be excited about with this year’s Illinois team. The Illini could very well be the biggest wildcard in the Big Ten. If a couple bench players improve and the star show out, this team could end up being special.
Illinois opens up with Nicholls State at home on Tuesday before heading out west for two road games over the weekend. The Illini will face Grand Canyon on Friday and Arizona on Sunday. Even a 2-1 run there would be encouraging.
#6 - Michigan Wolverines (--)
When the offseason began, Michigan looked like it would be right back in the mix of things in the Big Ten. John Beilein had built a powerhouse in Ann Arbor and the team had the chance to return a number of top-tier players.
The above is a good lesson in how fast things change in college basketball.
As fans are surely aware at this point, Beilein left for the NBA and the program also lost three players to the league as well, including two relatively surprising announcements. Michigan dropped from a sure fire top 25 roster into a team that could be fighting for NCAA eligibility on Selection Sunday. Michigan also hired first-time head coach Juwan Howard to try and keep the program’s recent success heading into the future.
Based on these circumstances, you could honestly slot Michigan anywhere between third and 10th in these rankings. Nobody really has any idea on how Howard will do as a head coach and there are some clear issues on the depth chart due to the departures of Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews, and Jordan Poole.
Much of this season is going to depend on how good Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske can be for the Wolverines. Both were really productive players for the Wolverines last season, but can they led team with a lot of question marks elsewhere back to the Big Dance? We’ll see.
One major challenge Michigan will have early on is an injury to freshman Franz Wagner. Many thought he would start for the Wolverines early on.
Michigan will open its season on Tuesday at home against Appalachian State for its only game of the opening week.
#7 - Penn State Nittany Lions (--)
In a lot of ways, Penn State is really similar to Illinois heading into this season. The Nittany Lions project to be a talented and experienced squad, but questions remain about the team and program’s ability to take a step forward. As such, it’s hard to project Penn State much higher than this heading into this season. Maybe it’s unfair to judge the Nittany Lions on the program’s past missteps, but at this point, we need a “wait and see” approach.
By every general measure, all the pieces are there to succeed. Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins are projected to return upfront and the team also returns some interesting guards in Myles Dread and Jamari Wheeler. Losing Josh Reaves will be a hit, but there are some returners who can take some of those minutes like Dread and other players like Rasir Bolton and Myreon Jones. Penn State is also adding three players in its 2019 recruiting class.
What all that leaves us with is the picture of a team with a lot of upside. And notably, Penn State played remarkably well down the stretch, winning seven of the team’s final 10 regular season games. Fans are hoping that momentum carries over this offseason.
But like Illinois, Penn State has to prove itself. We’ve seen Pat Chambers and his staff bring back some quality players and fail to live up to expectations. Some of those years were self-inflicted and others resulted from injuries. Either way, it’s going to keep doubt around this program until it delivers. We will see if this year’s squad can answer the bell.
Penn State opens its season on Tuesday against Maryland Eastern Shore at home. It will also face Wagner at home on Saturday.
#8 - Indiana Hoosiers (--)
It’s been a tough go in recent years for the Hoosiers. Despite having some lofty expectations and a coaching change, Indiana just can’t seem to translate offseason and recruiting success to the court when it matters most. The latest misstep was last season, which was an unmitigated disaster for Indiana basketball. The Hoosiers had as much (or more) talent than anyone in the league and ended up finishing 19-16 overall and missing the NCAA Tournament.
Teams don’t win on talent alone, but Indiana had the kind of roster most programs dream about having heading into a new season. Romeo Langford was in the backcourt, Juwan Morgan and De’Ron Davis were upfront, and Indiana had a plethora of talented wings and guards around them. Failing to make the NCAAs with those guys in the fold was an absolute failure of a year for Archie Miller.
But regardless of what happened last year, Hoosier fans are hoping the program can move forward this season. The bad news is that many of those key pieces are now gone. Langford declared for the NBA and Morgan graduated. Indiana also suffered transfers from Jake Forrester and Clifton Moore. Additionally, Evan Fitzner and Zach McRoberts are also graduating. That’s a lot of guys walking out the door.
The good news is that some key pieces do return. Rob Phinisee and Aljami Durham project to return in the backcourt, Justin Smith should be back on the wing, and De’Ron Davis returns upfront.
Indiana is also adding a five-star prospect upfront in Traycs Jackson-Davis and another solid prospect in the backcourt in Armaan Franklin. Jerome Hunter will also return after losing a year due to injury. Many regarded him as one of the more talented players in the 2018 recruiting class.
Indiana will certainly have some pieces to work with this season, but it’s hard to feel good about where things sit after a lost year. We will see if the Hoosiers can live up to the hype this time around.
The Hoosiers will open up the season on Tuesday against Western Illinois. The team will follow that up with a home game against Portland State on Saturday.
#9 - Rutgers Scarlet Knights (--)
Last season was a remarkable one for the Scarlet Knights. After posting nine total wins in Big Ten play over the course of four seasons, Rutgers was able to finish with a 7-13 record in conference play last season. The Scarlet Knights also posted the program’s best rating on KenPom since 2011 and arguably had the team’s best overall season since 2006.
Unfortunately, improving on past performance doesn’t necessarily change things much for a program has struggled as much as Rutgers has over the last decade. This might not sound pleasant, but the Scarlet Knights have been horrendous since Gary Waters left town. While last year was a step forward, the team was still 78th on KenPom and had a losing record. This is further complicated by the surprising transfer of Eugene Omoruyi, who was arguably the team’s best player last season.
The good news is that Rutgers returns most of everything else. Geo Baker and Montez Mathis should return in the backcourt, Ron Harper should be back on the wing, and Myles Johnson should return upfront. That’s a ton of depth and experience coming back to the lineup.
Like several other teams on this list, Rutgers’ challenge is going to be scaling that monumental divide between mediocre and good. The team also has to overcome the loss of Omoruyi, which is a substantial hit. It’s easy to be competitive and isn’t that tough to pull off a few upsets. However, being genuinely relevant in the league is a different story. Rutgers has to finish games at home, avoid bad losses to teams like Fordham in non-conference play, and learn how to grow from an underdog into a competitor.
Steve Pikiell has done an outstanding job for the Scarlet Knights so far. He’s taken a program from the dumpster into the parking lot. Now, he needs to find a way into the building with the real contenders in the Big Ten. We’ll see if he can get the job done.
Rutgers will open up its season on Tuesday at home against Bryant. The Scarlet Knights will then face Niagara at home on Sunday.
#10 - Wisconsin Badgers (--)
Well, after putting together four incredible seasons in Madison, Ethan Happ will depart the program as one of its all-time greats. He was a phenomenal big man that produced on a regular basis and was the key holdover from Bo Ryan’s tenure. All told, a special era comes to a close with his graduation.
Ready or not, the Badgers now have to figure out what’s next for the program. Happ dominated the team’s offensive possessions last season (eighth nationally) and carried the team to another NCAA Tournament appearance. He was the Big Ten’s best big man and an elite player nationally. More simply put, he’s not going to be replaced overnight.
And Happ isn’t the only departure either. Wisconsin also lost Khalil Iverson and Charlie Thomas to graduation and Tai Strickland and Alex Illikainen to transfer. Iverson was the only substantial contributor of that group, but the others did provide depth for the Badgers. And notably, Thomas did play in 28 games last season.
This is going to sound a bit basic, but Wisconsin’s season is going to depend on how decent players step up this season. Players like Brad Davison, Nate Reuvers, and D’Mitrik Trice. All three played serious minutes for the Badgers, but none of the three were anything to write home about. At least one of those three must take a step forward this season, or Wisconsin will struggle. It’s as simple as that.
Wisconsin will have some proven options to work with heading into this season. However, the team lacks a proven star or many All-Big Ten candidates. It’s going to need to find some to get back to the NCAA Tournament at season’s end. The Badgers open up on Tuesday on a neutral court against Saint Mary’s and will follow that up with a home game against Eastern Illinois on Friday.
#11 - Iowa Hawkeyes (--)
Outside of Michigan, no team got hit harder this offseason in these rankings than Iowa. Not only did the Hawkeyes learn that Jordan Bohannon might miss all of this season due to injury, but the program also lost Isaiah Moss to transfer. What once projected to be a potential second weekend NCAA team now looks like it’s going to have to battle to be in at-large consideration.
That momentum was building after an exciting finish to last season. Iowa ended up making the Round of 32 and coming just a bucket short of beating Tennessee for a trip to the Sweet 16. The Hawkeyes also scored some marquee regular season wins over teams like Iowa State and Michigan.
Unfortunately, things don’t look as optimistic now. As mentioned, Moss transferred and Bohannon could miss all of this season. Both were projected to be starters in the backcourt. The Hawkeyes also lost Tyler Cook to the NBA and Nicholas Baer to graduation. The only proven returners at this point are Joe Wieskamp and Luka Garza.
The good news is that Iowa still has the pieces to be successful. As noted, they return two starters, including a potential All-Big Ten player in Wieskamp. Iowa also added a transfer in Bakari Evelyn who should lock down the point. Iowa also brings in a top 100 prospect in Pat McCaffery and an intriguing guard in Joe Toussaint in its 2019 recruiting class.
Replacing the team’s losses won’t be easy, but the Hawkeyes can avoid a complete collapse if Fran McCaffery can get a few of the newcomers to contribute early. If so, another NCAA appearance seems reasonable.
The Hawkeyes will open up against SIU Edwardsville on Friday for the team’s only game of the opening week.
#12 - Minnesota Golden Gophers (--)
After a rough year, Minnesota bounced back nicely during last season. The Gophers were able to jump out to a nice start and ended up finishing 22-14 overall. Minnesota also beat Louisville in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament before falling short against Michigan State in the Round of 32.
The Gophers hope to build off that momentum this time around, but will have the challenge of replacing a number of key contributors. Amir Coffey declared for the NBA Draft and Dupree McBrayer, Jordan Murphy, and Matz Stockman are all graduating. Isaiah Washington also announced he would be transferring.
Luckily, Minnesota will have some key pieces to work with this season. Gabe Kalscheur returns in the backcourt, Jarvis Omersa should be back on the wing, and Daniel Oturu returns upfront. Minnesota is also adding a fringe top 100 prospect in Tre Williams in the backcourt and Alihan Demir on the transfer market.
Unfortunately, there just isn’t much proven star power on Minnesota’s roster heading into this season. It will be up to Richard Pitino and his staff to find some depth players that can take the next step.
Minnesota will open up against Cleveland State on Tuesday before facing a really good Oklahoma team on a neutral court on Saturday. It should be an intriguing opening week for the Gophers.
#13 - Nebraska Cornhuskers (--)
No Big Ten team will look more reshaped than Nebraska heading into this season. With the firing of Tim Miles and massive roster departures, nobody was quite sure what to expect in Lincoln. But the Huskers went out and hired Fred Hoiberg, who went on a recruiting onslaught, completely changing how Nebraska will look this season.
Generally speaking, it’s pretty hard to have any idea about how this team is going to look. The Huskers are basically losing the team’s entire starting lineup and a few other top contributors. Tanner Borchardt, Isaac Copeland, James Palmer, and Glynn Watson are all graduating, Isaiah Roby declared for the NBA Draft, and Thomas Allen transferred from the program. By total minutes, those were the top seven players on the roster last season.
Hoiberg has added a plethora of transfers and late 2019 additions to fill the roster gaps. Some of those players include Cameron Mack and Haanif Cheatham in the backcourt, Matej Kavas on the wing, and Kevin Cross upfront. It’s been impressive to watch Hoiberg build a roster out of nothing in just a few months.
As late additions, most of the newcomers arrive with mixed expectations. After all, beggars can’t be choosers and Nebraska was pretty desperate this offseason to find bodies to fill the roster. There are also questions about how a team like will come together in just a few months. Nebraska is effectively trying to win with an expansion team roster. There’s virtually no carryover from last season. This isn’t common to see in the Big Ten.
Expect Nebraska to improve gradually over the season as the players familiarize themselves. We will see what Hoiberg can do with these pieces. Nebraska will open up on Tuesday at home against UC Riverside and face Southern Utah at home on Saturday.
#14 - Northwestern Wildcats (--)
The Wildcats didn’t enter last season with high expectations, but many viewed the team as one capable of doing some damage in Big Ten play and making another NCAA push. Unfortunately, Northwestern ended up falling short in virtually every big game and finished the season with an underwhelming 13-19 overall record.
And unfortunately, things probably won’t get easier heading into this season. Northwestern lost Vic Law, Dererk Pardon, and Ryan Taylor to graduation and players like Barrett Benson and Aaron Falzon have transferred since the start of last season. Chris Collins did a great job of bringing in talent during his first few years, but much of that is now gone.
If Northwestern is going to get back on track, it’s going to need players like AJ Turner and young options like Pete Nance and Ryan Young to step up. The Wildcats will also need a lot out of the program’s top 35 class, which is set to arrive on campus in the coming months. Players like Robbie Beran from that group will have to hit the ground running.
Realistically, this looks like a rebuilding year for the Wildcats. But we will see if Collins and his staff can work some magic. There are some solid players here. It’s just going to take a few surprises for Northwestern to do some real damage.
Northwestern will open up against Merrimack at home on Friday for the team’s only game of opening week.